Obama to .gov agencies: More Internet openness

The still-to-be-named CTO for the federal government will be given 120 days to make U.S. agencies "harness new technologies" and become more open to the public.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read

In one of his first official acts as president, Barack Obama ordered more government openness, marking an abrupt end to his predecessor's policy of extraordinary secrecy.

Obama's still-be-named chief information officer -- some speculation has centered on Washington, D.C., CTO Vivek Kundra -- is required to come up with ways within 120 days to make the administration more Internet-friendly. (The memorandum says agencies must "harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.")

The second memorandum overrules the Bush administration's controversial policy, issued a few weeks after September 11, 2001, instructing agencies to limit their responses to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests as much as possible. OpenTheGovernment.org said last fall that Bush had "exercised unprecedented levels not only of restriction of access to information" but also of "suppression of discussion of those policies and their underpinnings and sources."

Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's October 2001 memorandum promises that the Justice Department would "defend" decisions not to release materials, and an accompanying note talks about denying requests "to provide necessary protection in the wake of terrorism."

That's what Obama essentially revoked. Here's an excerpt from the FOIA memo:

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears... All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.

And an excerpt from the memo "Transparency and Open Government":

Information maintained by the federal government is a national asset. My administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.